I just finished watching Get Back, the new Beatles documentary. It’s everything I hoped it would be, and it serves to undercut the 50-year myth that The Beatles ended their association as band members with ugliness and hatred. It ain’t all flowers, but overall Get Back is a celebration of The Beatles and their endless talent and charm.
Most of the tension of the film relates to George Harrison and his frustration with his role in the band. The first installment shows Harrison quitting the band for about five days and then returning after airing some of his grievances with the lads. The five-day absence was taken seriously by everyone, and George eventually returned to a much more group-oriented and relaxed atmosphere.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, Harrison should have been even more upset than he actual claimed to be at the time. The upshot of The Beatles’ breakup a year after the Get Back sessions was that Harrison put out All Things Must Pass in 1970, which contains 22 songs (not counting the Apple Jam that appears at the back-end of the record). For reference, Harrison wrote 22 songs that ended up on Beatles albums from 1963-1970.
This is more than just an interesting factoid–every song on All Things Must Pass would have been not only a worthy song on a Beatles album, but one of the standout tracks on the album. That’s not an exaggeration, either. The brilliance of All Things Must Pass is comical when you consider the only songs he penned on Let it Be, which was released the same year as All Things Must Pass, were “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue.” If there was something disappointing about Lennon and McCartney in 1969 in 1970, it wasn’t their relationship with each other–it was their inability to recognize that Harrison was their songwriting equal, and perhaps their songwriting superior at that time.
And it’s not as though Harrison suddenly found a burst of inspiration after The Beatles broke up for good. Several of the songs on All Things Must Pass were written, pitched to, and ultimately disregarded by McCartney and Lennon during the Get Back sessions. Get Back was an incredible documentary, but I think it could have used a little more footage of McCartney and Lennon’s dismissal of Harrison’s work, if only to gain some more context for how they could have tossed aside incredible songs when they were seemingly desperate for material to meet their fast-approaching deadline to complete their newest album.
I’d imagine one reason Harrison’s material didn’t get its due with The Beatles is that Harrison was simply operating on a religious level that the rest of the group wasn’t interested in. The Beatles were OK with being spiritual–Lennon makes use of the Hindu mantra “jai guru deva om” in “Across the Universe,” and even though the Mother Mary sung about in “Let it Be” was McCartney’s mother and not the Virgin Mary, the band was still seemingly comfortable allowing people to make the incorrect association. But the Harrisongs on All Things Must Pass are Religious with a capital “R.” Harrison begs and pleads with higher powers all over the album. He expresses his desire to see and know the Lord on “My Sweet Lord,” he asks the Lord to forgive him and listen to him on “Hear Me Lord,” and he even encourages others to chant the names of the Lord on “Awaiting on You All.” The guy really liked the Lord.
The songs that are not explicitly about the Lord may as well be, too. On “I’d Have You Anytime,” which Harrison co-wrote with Bob Dylan, Harrison sings “let me in there/I know I’ve been here/let me into your heart.” On “Beware of Darkness,” Harrison warns the listener to “beware of Maya,” which is a Hindu term for things that obscure spiritual reality. On “The Art of Dying,” Harrison opens by proclaiming there will come a time when “there’s nothing Sister Mary can do” to keep him on the Earth. Heavy stuff, that. I can see why McCartney and Lennon would maybe not have wanted all those intense sentiments flooding a Beatles album, but in another sense I have no clue why those sentiments wouldn’t have been any more valid than whatever personal sentiments they had to offer lyrically.
A huge benefit of Harrison releasing all these songs under his own moniker was that he got to collaborate with people who realistically were never going to show up on a Beatles album. A short list of people who showed up to work on the album: Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Derek and the Dominoes members Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon, Rolling Stones saxophone player Bobby Keys, Badfinger founder Pete Ham, Cream drummer Ginger Baker, Yes drummer Alan White. Pretty good musicians.
It’s amazing to me that Harrison wanted his first foray into solo music to be so collaborative, actually, because Lennon and McCartney took the opposite approach. Lennon’s first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, features a pretty sparse outfit of accompaniment, and McCartney’s first two solo projects, McCartney and Ram, feature almost no one except for the McCartneys Paul and Linda. It seems that Lennon and McCartney had grown tired of extensive collaboration, but Harrison, after all those years of being relegated to collaboration duty, still wanted his first solo album to be a group effort.
And the songs really benefit from all the camaraderie that went into constructing them. “Wah-Wah” is a song about Harrison getting a headache from dealing with his Beatles frustration, and features him extolling the benefits of staying away from all that drama. Sounds like it’s fit to be a quiet number, but the horns and layered guitars and pianos turn the song instead into a symphony so loud that Harrison has to literally scream over top of them to be heard in the mix. Same goes for “Art of Dying,” which Harrison wrote in 1966, most likely only with an acoustic guitar part in mind. The session musicians, however, turn Harrison’s lyrics about reincarnation into a proto-disco jam.
There’s a fascinating part of the Get Back documentary when the four fellas are working out how they’re going to play the bridge of Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down.” McCartney is trying to construct these harmonies behind Lennon’s lead vocals, and Harrison says very curtly in the middle of the whole process that he thinks the harmonies are terrible. He says something to the effect of “if these were played back to you right now on a tape recorder, you’d throw them out right away.” It’s telling that the final version of “Don’t Let Me Down” that is recorded as the B-side to “Get Back” and then played live on the rooftop at Savile Row doesn’t feature any harmonies in the bridge at all. Harrison was absolutely right that the harmonies sucked. He wasn’t wrong about that, and I don’t think his musical instincts were wrong again for a very long time. It’s a shame McCartney and Lennon didn’t know that at the time. I love “Let it Be,” but I don’t think it’s heresy to say the album would have been greatly improved by some more George. What couldn’t, now that I think about it?
Because I want to talk about All Things Must Pass some more, here’s a bit about each song on the album and my favorite moment from every one.
“I’d Have You Anytime”
Apparently Harrison wrote the lyrics to the verses, and Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics to the chorus. It’s a perfect intro to the album, as it provides a gradual lead-in into the heavier lyrical content/more involved musicality to come.
Favorite moment: The ascending basslines in the verses that precede the “let me into your heart” and “let me roll it to you” lyrics play so well off the lead guitar licks.
“My Sweet Lord”
Probably the most famous song on the album, and for good reason. The Hare Krishna is kind of addicting, as it turns out.
Favorite moment: The key change around 1:45, and then the introduction of the drums right in time with that.
Crazy guitars in this one. I talked about the lyrics above, but they deserve another mention, because they’re so victorious. “You don’t see me crying/you don’t hear me sighing.” He knew he had a hit with this album.
Favorite moment: It hooks you right from the jump. The two guitars play a similar line over each other, the bass comes in, and then it’s just off to the races.
“Isn’t it a Pity”
Definitely another one about the breakup of The Beatles. The lyrics are awesome: they don’t offer any solution or declaration beyond “it’s a shame.” I like songs like that.
Favorite moment: It’s gotta be the last two minutes or so, with Harrison proclaiming “what a pity” over and over while the slide guitar, drums, and strings all play steadily behind him.
“What is Life”
Not only is it great and fun and joyous, but it was in Goodfellas and This is 40.
Favorite moment: At the three-minute mark, Harrison adds slide guitar into the mix behind the verse, and he plays a couple cool lines that never show up again. I’m always waiting for those when I listen to the song.
“If Not For You”
Another Dylan song. Harrison’s version is way better in my opinion. In Dylan’s an organ plays the descending hook. I like it more in this one where the guitar plays the hook.
Favorite moment: The last time Harrison says “the winter would hold no spring.”
“Behind that Locked Door”
Think this one was written for Dylan, not by Dylan, because he was nervous about performing live for the first time in a while. Harrison tells him “the love you are blessed with/the world’s waiting for.” Nice guy.
Favorite moment: The repetition of “please” in the choruses. Makes the song nicer somehow that he says it twice.
“Let it Down”
This was written in 1968 while Harrison was still a Beatle. They really missed out on this one. I think McCartney would have had a field day on bass. Oh well.
Favorite moment: Every time the song goes quiet after the loud choruses. Such cool dynamics.
“Run of the Mill”
Potentially my personal favorite song on the album. Incredible vocal performance. And the drums are so tight and interesting.
Favorite moment: “No one around you will carry the blame for you.”
“Beware of Darkness”
Really good lyrics here. “Watch out now, take care/beware of soft shoe shufflers/dancing down the sidewalks/as each unconscious sufferer/wanders aimlessly/beware of Maya.” Not entirely sure what it means, but it sounds perfect.
Favorite moment: Whatever clean, echoey effect is on the intro guitar should be on more songs.
Don’t listen to “Apple Scruffs” very often, but it’s a funny song about the weird girls that would hang obsessively outside The Beatles’ studio all the time.
Favorite moment: The triple-tracked vocals in the choruses.
“Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)”
Used masterfully in How I Met Your Mother. Also used masterfully on All Things Must Pass. Awesome piano hook.
Favorite moment: The key change at :30. Not actually sure that’s a key change but I love it.
“Awaiting on You All”
This chorus gets stuck in my head so often that I think it’s going to actually get me to chant the names of the Lord some day.
Favorite moment: “The Pope owns 51% of General Motors.”
“All Things Must Pass”
Best lyrics on the album. There’s a cool part in the Get Back documentary where Lennon suggests George change “a wind can blow those clouds away” to “a mind can blow those clouds away.” George ends up taking the advice.
Favorite moment: The bridge is an all-timer.
“I Dig Love”
Weird lyrics, but I like the strange piano ascents and descents.
Favorite moment: The syncopated piano in the verses.
“Art of Dying”
This song is years ahead of its time. Seriously crazy that it came out in 1970. As catchy as catchy gets.
Favorite moment: A tie between the horns and the bassline. Both are so active and full of tension and energy.
“Hear Me Lord”
Very interesting choice to put the final plea to the Lord as the last track on the album. Killer song, too, if you’ve made it this far.
Favorite moment: The background vocals seal the deal on this one. Particularly on “above and below us.”